Experiments in Art

Sorry that I have been away for so long, but life, including art, gets in the way of blogging. Time is required to learn new techniques and then figure out a way how to tweak them to make them your own. Oh, so much to say. How can I fill you all in on what has been happening?

As some of you know, I have been taking occasional classes at Pigment in Tokyo.  You might have seen pictures of it on architecture or design sites or in magazines. Pigment is an incubator for artists, focusing on traditional materials in Japan to help preserve those traditions and to introduce them to artists who might not be familiar with them. One of their most regularly held classes is the one on how to make paint from the powdered pigments that line the walls. These basic skills can then be applied to the other classes, such as nihonga painting. I then started to think about what I could do with that skill and I also started to think about how I could make more conceptual art.

Writers are always advised to write about what they know, and I thought that might apply to art as well. What is in my every day that is unique to me and that I could would not mind expressing my thoughts about in visual form? Being an outsider? Maybe. The flowers in my garden? Pretty but…it has been done a million times already. My allergies? Bingo! Living and working in southern Japan in the shadow of a huge chemical factory that looks like a metropolis in sci-fi films, I was regularly exposed for many years to aeolian or yellow dust from China as well as toxins from the factories in the area. Yes, Kitakyushu had won awards for cleaning up its environment but still had a long way to go. It turns out that I developed sensitivities to smog and other types of pollution that surfaced annually as reactions similar to allergies but are actually common reactions to smog or fine particulate matter (called PM 2.5 in Asia). The Kyushu area has more yellow dust than PM 2.5 and  the Kanto area has more PM 2.5 than yellow dust, but both areas have yellow dust and PM 2.5. I have become an expert on the different reactions triggered by each of those two types of dust and rarely need to look at the details of the air quality index (AQI) anymore. Why don’t I use my art to talk about air pollution?

Gyre of Gobi (coloured pencil and gesso on two wooden panels); 2015; 1600 mm x 1000 mm.

I started drawing the flow of air across China. Spring winds carrying yellow dust from the Gobi desert as well as other pollutants that tag along blow across the entire Asian continent, disrupting business and affecting people’s health. It really does swoop down like that. I felt like I had to push it further…

I tried painting portraits on masks. It felt…too gimmicky.

At the same time, I tried self-portraits dirtied by the suggestion of air pollution. I was trying to focus on using coloured pencil for this new theme. If it is going to be my thing, I might as well keep using those pencils, right? This still has possibilities that I want to explore in the future.

Then I got the idea to make paint from the dust in the air. Yes, that’s right. D-U-S-T. I even asked the staff at Pigment if they thought it might work. After getting used to they idea, they agreed albeit a bit reluctantly that it should work in theory. A powder is a powder, and dust is a lot cheaper than the powdered pigments that they have. The Pigment staff even emptied the Roomba vacuum cleaners and gave me their dust. Yes, they did!

Pigment staff also suggested using a glass muller to get a smoother paint with a more even texture.

Some of you are thinking, “Ewwww! Gross!” This is much better than making red paint years ago. They crushed the exoskeletons of small beetles to get those lovely reds. That’s gross! I filter out the bugs (never seen any yet though), cat hair, leftover popcorn, and other bits from the vacuum. More than 80% of the dust blows in from the outside. Have you ever seen an empty, deserted house? Was it immaculate or dusty? Probably everything was covered in a layer of dust even though people do not live there. Japan is semi-tropical though with bugs everywhere, so I zap the dust in the microwave to kill any mites. In reality most comes from the outside. I have also collected enough samples from various places and locations to know this is true.

The tones, so far, have been a delicate sepia. Acrylic fibers and grains of sand result in paint with a few more clumps than usual. It also does not dissolve nicely into graduated tones like ink would.

As you can see, the sepia tones are very delicate on the beige mulberry paper. These are experiments to explore what the dust paint can do. On the other hand, I could say they are finished and that I am now working in the Mono-ha genre.
I think an iPhone enhances the pale tones and makes them look darker than they actually are.


As you can see, I have been busy. I am still trying to capture wind currents. This one is on a gessoed wooden panel and still a work in progress. Acrylic fibres are really hard to filter out by the way and the bane of my existence.

I promise that I have been working in the studio!

What next? I will display some of these experimental drawings/paintings at the Narrative Abstract 6 show at the Artcomplex Center of Tokyo [sic] from January 30 to February 5. I also want to collect dust from all over the world and see how different they are. I even have a microscope. If I can only remember how to make a microscope slide… Then I want to make portraits of the people who give me the dust using paint made from their own dust, and the people should wear surgical masks in the portraits to make them more anonymous and to suggest that air pollution goes across national borders. My Gutai grandmother suggested that I pour the dust onto a canvas but I thought that seemed a bit indelicate. On the other hand, it does sound like something people in the Gutai group would do. I am also thinking of clouds and landscapes. The sepia tones are beautiful, but the medium takes time to make. The more I filter it, maybe the fewer clumps I will get. I also have to try grinding it with with e glass muller for a longer period of time to try and get a smoother medium. As you can see, this is all very experimental. If you want to be involved, send me a Zip Loc bag of your dust and a photograph of you wearing a mask, please! Talk about an inexpensive way to support the arts and recycle something that would normally be thrown out.

Care to come in from the outside for a nice chat?